A(nother) Review: Those People by Louise Candlish

Two reviews in two days? No, I didn’t read it that quickly, I’m trying to catch up on my reviews – I have quite a few outstanding, so here goes with the next one.

 

The Facts

 

Title Those People

Author Louise Candlish (Twitter: @Louise_Candlish)

Publisher Simon & Schuster

Publication Date 11thJuly 2019

Buy it on Bert’s Books bertsbooks.co.uk/those-people

 

The Blurb

MEET THE NEIGHBOURS YOU’LL LOVE TO HATE

 

Until Darren and Jodie move in, Lowland Way is a suburban paradise.

Beautiful homes. Friendly neighbours. Kids playing out in the street.

But Darren and Jodie don’t follow the rules and soon disputes over loud music and parking rights escalate to threats of violence. Then, early one Sunday, a horrific crime shocks the street. As the police go house-to-house, the residents close ranks and everyone’s story is the same: They did it.

But there’s a problem. The police don’t agree. And the door they’re knocking on next is yours.

 

Does it deliver?

It absolutely does.

 

It takes time for the reader to discover what the crime that shocks the street is, the first part of the novel begins the day that Darren and Jodie move in, but each chapter begins with snippets of transcripts between the police and the neighbours describing what happened that Sunday morning.

 

It works well to build up the tension, but I was half expecting the crime to be the main focus of the book, instead, we reach it within a third of the novel and we then focus on the fall-out and the escalating tension between Darren and Jodie and the rest of the neighbours – building to an ending, leaves the loose ends just tied tight enough for you to want that teensy bit more, but feeling satisfied

 

Characters

We follow four neighbours – Ralph, Tess, Sissy and Ant – they are in effect the heroes of our story, battling against the invasion to their perfect lives. That’s certainly how they see themselves

 

And while Darren and Jodie aren’t exactly the nicest neighbours to have, they’ve technically not committed any crimes. They just haven’t fitted in.

 

There’s a wonderful moment when Ralph – after having encourage Ant to record Jodie and Darren’s driveway for evidence – complains that Darren is looking out his window at them. “He’s probably a paedophile” he complains.

 

And that’s typical of these characters. They’re all nice enough on the surface, but they’re full of prejudice and NIMBYism. It is said that a person’s true character is revealed when they’re put under pressure, and that’s certainly what happens here.

 

Candlish has created a large cast, but one that is easy to get a grip on and instantly feels real and compelling.

 

The Setting

Most of the action takes place in Lowland Way – a street in modern-day London, with a few small snippets taking place in some nearby pubs. Candlish cleverly doesn’t waste too much time describing the street.

 

We all know places like Lowland Way and all have our own images of it. The geography of the houses starts to make itself known naturally as the book progresses. I imagined a mix of Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives and the street I grew up in.

 

The Verdict – 9/10

It’s another strong book that I think will be a big hit this summer. It builds tension and suspense throughout and even though you might find yourself not liking the characters very much, you do still care about them, wishing them their little victories, excusing some of their mistakes – even when it’s obvious they’re doing something wrong.

 

My theory is that you’ll probably find yourself feeling sympathy to one of the characters – but it’ll be a different one, depending on who you’re most like. Expect a BuzzFeed quiz on it very soon.

 

(If you feel sympathy for them all, you’ve got problems)

 

Look Out For

If you enjoyed Those People you’ll enjoy Our House also by Louise Candlish.

 

Don’t Forget…

You can buy Those People from my own online book shop Bert’s Books. If you use the code RAMBLING at the check-out, you’ll get 10% off.

 

 

A(nother) Review: The Closer I Get by Paul Burston

I’m trying out a new format for reviews – just to see if it will help me find the time to actually write them! I’m still reading loads, but not finding the time to put my thoughts down in words. Hopefully this will work!

The Facts

Title The Closer I Get

Author Paul Burston (Twitter: @PaulBurston)

Publisher Orenda Books

Publication Date 11thJuly 2019

Buy it on Bert’s Books bertsbooks.co.uk/the-closer-i-get

The Blurb

Tom is a successful author, but he’s struggling to finish his novel. His main distraction is an online admirer, Evie, who simply won’t leave him alone.

Evie is smart, well read and unstable; she lives with her father and her social-media friendships are not only her escape, but everything she has. When she’s hit with a restraining order, her world is turned upside down, and Tom is free to live his life again, to concentrate on writing

But things aren’t really adding up. For Tom is distracted but also addicted to his online relationships, and when they take a darker, more menacing turn, he feels powerless to change things. Because maybe he needs Evie more than he’s letting on

Does it deliver?

The first two paragraphs of the blurb are a neat summary of Part One, the first sixty pages or so, where we flit between Evie’s POV and Tom’s POV during the time of the trial. 

Tom’s parts are told in third person, reflecting on the events that led them to the trial, while Evie’s sections are in first person and told through the course of the trial.  

Part Two picks up after Evie is given her restraining order and this is where the blurb doesn’t quite match up. I didn’t feel that Tom was particularly addicted to his online relationships. He does neglect a real-life friendship with Emma when he’s cruising – but that’s in real-life, not online.

Characters

The characters are sparse, we are tightly focused on Tom and Evie and their relationship, and as you might guess from the blurb, it’s only really through Tom that we meet anyone else. His best friend Emma, a hook-up called Luke, and his next-door neighbour whom he starts to form a bond with.

And though we don’t focus on them very much, it’s only really Luke who doesn’t quite feel real to me (only because his presence in parts is a little coincidental). Tom and Evie feel real, both of them flawed, and as a result we’re never quite sure if they’re both telling the truth or if neither of them are.

Tom, particularly, is well-drawn, both as the victim, and as someone who needs the victim-hood. He seeks out Evie, wanting to know where she is, wanting to keep an eye on her, and while it might be a case of wanting to keep your enemies close, it dances the line between self-protection and self-harm. 

Setting

Set between London and Hastings, this is very much set in the real world, more so than many other books I’ve read. Burston’s characters think and speak in the way we all do. They don’t sensor themselves to stop them inadvertently advertising a brand. 

When they walk past a bookshop, they walk past Foyles, not a bookshop. When Tom talks about being picked for a book club, he talks about Richard and Judy, not a ‘TV Book Club’. They’re small things, but it helps the whole world much more real.

Perhaps the only thing against it is the world doesn’t feel hugely populated, perhaps because of the limited use of characters. This works really well in Hastings, but the London scenes felt a bit 28 Days Later to me.

Verdict9/10

Of course I liked it. I don’t review books if I don’t like them, but I more than liked this book, I loved it. 

It was a gripping read, one I kept wanting to pick back up whenever I wasn’t reading it, and so I devoured it. 

It’s a new kind of fiction, not just because it explores the effects that social media has on our lives – the stalker can find out everything she needs with just a click of a mouse, but also, the victim can stalk right back – but because it’s that rare thing where a gay man is front and centre, but the plot doesn’t revolve around his sexuality.

Of course, it’s referenced, and it does play into the plot, because it’s part of who Tom is, but it doesn’t define the plot. A lot of what happened to him, could have happened to a straight man. 

Thrillers where the lead character happens to be gay are rare, and that’s what makes this refreshing. The fact it’s so well written is what makes it excellent.

Don’t Forget…

You can buy The Closer I Getfrom my own online book shop Bert’s Books. If you use the code RAMBLING at the check-out, you’ll get 10% off.

A(nother) Review: Hold by Michael Donkor

I’ve been a bit remiss lately with writing my book reviews – but I feel I have a good excuse. 

As well as being busy doing edits on my own novel, I sort of accidentally launched my own business in March. 

CAUTION: SALES PLUG

For those of you not aware Bert’s Books is an online bookshop that specialises in subscription bundles. 

/END SALES PLUG

Fortunately, this new business means that I’m getting to read more than I ever did before. Some might say that that’s the reason I launched it. To them, I say – “Excuse me, move out of my light, I’m trying to read.”

So, I’m going to try and make up for the books that I haven’t blogged about yet, by writing them now. This might mean you get a few blogs hitting you over the next few days – but that’s the way it will be from now on, since I’ll be reading 3 or 4 books a week.

It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it. 

First up – and in no particular order is Hold by Michael Donkor 

What’s it about?

Belinda is seventeen years old and a housemaid in Ghana to a couple she knows as Aunty and Uncle, she works alongside Mary, a much younger girl and the two of them become surrogate sisters.

But then Uncle and Aunty send Belinda away, to London with Nana and Doctor. There, she is to be treated as a member of the family, to be educated, and they hope to tame their wild-child daughter Amma.

What’s it like? 

Most of the book is told from Belinda’s point of view, which with her Ghanaian sensibilities and idioms – at first proving distracting to me. There is a glossary at the beginning of the book with some Ghanaian words and their English. 

I tried not to use it, I don’t like books where you have to keep flipping back to check something, be it a map, a family tree or a glossary, I think it takes you out of the action, and really the book should be well written enough to not need it.

I’m not saying don’t put the Ghanaian words in, but using them in the right context at the right time and the reader will pick up what it means. Fortunately, Donkor achieves this and I didn’t have to use the glossary, bar one time towards the end of the book. 

It’s not until you get to Amma’s point of view chapters that you realise how well written Belinda’s are. They have two distinct voices, I can see and hear them, almost feel them in my head. 

What’s the best bit?

The bit that will come to mind when I think of this book in the future is Belinda’s trip from the airport to her new home in London.

It’s a switching of positions for the reader and Belinda. We’re (probably) unfamiliar with her home in Ghana, but her commentary as Donkor takes the reader into the familiar streets and sights of London is both wry and spot-on. A real insight into how a stranger to this country must feel.

Verdict

7/10

You can buy Hold by Michael Donkor here – buying it from Bert’s Books supports my book addiction.

A(nother) Review: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

Bridie Devine is the finest female detective of her age – at least that’s what the blurb on the dust jacket of Things in Jars says. However, when we meet her, she’s trying to get over the failure of her previous case, so perhaps she’s not that great after all.  

We never find out the full details, but we know it went wrong, and we know it’s left Bridie facing her next case with an increased determination to solve it.

However, the next case might be harder than she thinks – it involves the disappearance of a mysterious child with rumoured special abilities. 

The special abilities are supernatural in nature and are presented as fact by the Victorian characters. They might be a bit hard for the reader to accept, but for the fact that we’ve already had to accept that Bridie is followed wherever she goes by the near-naked ghost of an Irish boxer – Ruby Doyle.

Kidd’s writing presents these quirks of nature through the eyes of Bridie in such an accepting way that we simply just move on without even blinking. 

I’m not a massive fan of historical fiction, but Kidd’s writing is so evocative you can almost feel the smog of Victorian London circling around you as you’re reading, it throws you into the setting and it leaves you there, letting the story unfold around you. 

A great read – I’m giving it 4 stars out of 5

You can get yourself a signed copy of Things in Jars by subscribing to the Literary Hardback bundle on bertsbooks.co.uk by Sunday 31st March or you can get 10% off any full price title – including Things in Jars – by using the code RAMBLING at the checkout.

Things in Jars is published in Hardback by Canongate on 4th April 2019

A(nother Review): Till the Cows Come Home by Sara Cox

Over the past few years biographies have been spoiled by the sensationalised, heightened realities of superstar celebrities and politicians, all the scandals being laid bear on the pages of tabloids and news websites.

This has result in the whole genre feeling a little bit cheapened, but we’ve started to see a revolution against these cynical money-grabs (I mean, all books are a money grab of some kind, else they’d be given away for free, but some of them were blatant, written with no love). 

First there was Robert Webb and Sara Pascoe who used their own stories to create extended essays on gender identity (I still think a lot about both of those books) and then we had Adam Kay’s memoir-with-a-message This Is Going To Hurt – a look at what it means to be a modern day junior doctor.

All three of these books were powerful insights, not just into their subjects, but also into the overriding issue. What I’ve missed – the bit about biographies I’ve always liked – is the ability to identify with a person’s life and understand a bit more about who and what they are.

The three books mentioned above (which are just three of many examples I could have used) are brilliant books, but they’re all carefully edited and constructed to support their overall message. I’m not saying it didn’t all happen, I’m saying I don’t feel like I necessarily saw all that happened.

Not so with Sara Cox’s Till the Cows Come Home.

I love Sara Cox. I listen to her radio show and I’m slightly in love with her irreverent humour. You know when a straight man is slightly obsessed with another man, it’s called a man-crush… what’s the opposite of that for a gay man being slightly obsessed with a straight woman? Possibly just a crush. 

Anyway, I’m slightly pre-disposed to love her book – but I went into it with the aim of being objective – and objectively speaking, this is a lovely heart-warming memoir. No trashy scandals, no message, just the story of the first twenty (or so) years of Cox’s life

From her early days growing up on a farm, to the accidental loss of the ‘h’ from the end of her name this covers all the parts of life that we all experience that we can all identify with, all told with Cox’s trademark warmth.

To be completely frank, it feels a little more restrained than the DJ is when she’s live on the radio and as such, loses the sound of her voice a little. This is probably to be expected, but I wonder if she was writing about something other than her family, her own history, whether her voice, her humour would shine through more.

Perhaps a fiction book might be coming in the future? For now, though, back to this book and it was a really nice exploration of Cox’s formative years. It doesn’t go into any huge detail about her party years as a nineties IT Girl – partly because Cox says she doesn’t really remember a lot of it – so anyone interested in that side of things might be disappointed.

But anyone who’s a fan of Sara Cox won’t be and this makes a lovely read. If you’re not a fan there’s still just enough here to keep you interested. I particularly enjoyed the stories of times she spent with her father, it’s clear she has a lot of love for him – as well as the rest of her family

Till the Cows Come Home is available now from Coronet

A(nother) Review: Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston

The chances are – if you’re on Twitter – then you’ve stumbled across Brian Bilston and his poetry on at least one occasion. Often dubbed the unofficial poet laureate of twitter, it is perhaps unsurprising that he found himself offered a book deal.

Diary of a Somebodystarts out promisingly enough with diary entries each headed with a short poem. It’s not a gimmick though, the fictional Brian Bilston is an aspiring poet and is planning to spend his year writing a poem a day.

The diary entries are split into two – poetry and prose. However, like all good resolutions, Brian starts to falter, finding lack of inspiration or lack of time.

Brian’s year goes as well as his poetry, his ex-wife is moving on, he’s fast losing interest in his job and his rival’s poetry career is going from strength to strength. Even his twitter followers have stalled at a measly forty.

Things start to look up a little when a new woman – Liz – joins their poetry group and Brian starts to develop a crush, which appears to be reciprocated.

I was excited for this book when I first got it – I’d seen some of Bilston’s poetry online and I’d enjoyed it, plus any differentiation from the normal structure of a novel is like catnip to me. 

Did it work? I’m going to go with yes, but I struggled a bit. The story was good, but the pacing was slow – and the poems slowed it down somewhat. 

The blurb of the book teased a potential murder, but when that doesn’t happen until somewhere near the end of August in a diary that starts in January, it does feel like you’re spending a lot of time waiting for the plot to start.

Perhaps that’s an issue with the marketing of the book, perhaps the ‘murder’ shouldn’t be mentioned at all, but I think without that mention, I’d be wondering where it was going. 

The plot sort of meanders along, a bit like in EastEnders when something dramatic happens in June, and then they have the characters tread water until they can do a big Christmas Day reveal.

Looking back on it now, as I write this review, I realise that’s my biggest problem with it, the plot being stretched out over the course of a year. It could have all taken place in the space of a few months and rattled along nicely. 

The poems however were great, they fed the theme of each chapter, and although they didn’t necessarily advance the plot, they were quite amusing at times.

In summary, a nice idea for the structure, but it doesn’t quite work for me. It’s funny, though, and dark in places if you like that sort of thing (I do) – and the diary entry structure does at least make it a nice to book to dip in and out of. 

You can quickly read an entry or two while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, so would be perfect for people who don’t have a lot of time to read.

Diary of a Somebody will be published by Picador in June

A(nother) Review: The Six Loves of Billy Binns

I’d seen a lot of good things about The Six Loves of Billy Binns but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about – it just felt like it was going to be one of those books that I’d enjoy.

Luckily for you, I’m going to give you a little summary of what it’s about so you can decide for yourselves if you’ll enjoy it (you will).

Billy Binns is 117 years old, he’s the oldest man in Europe and the longest-serving resident of his care home, having been there for over thirty years.

He’s your typical, sweet old man, but – as you’d imagine for someone approaching his thirteenth decade – he’s pretty frail and his memory is failing him.

He decides to write down his own potted history, exploring the relationships he experienced in his life so that he can share them with his son Archie, the next time he comes to visit.

The book flips back and forth between Billy as an old man and Billy’s younger life – a method that works well to put you in Billy’s fragmented memories. He starts off as young a boy, innocent but curious and then begins to grow up into a man who makes mistakes – some quite big ones, some perhaps unforgivable.

In a way, the book makes me think of a cross between Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie and Anne Griffin’s recent When All is Said.Both concern older people approaching the end of their lives, reflecting on their past.

The difference between them is I a hundred per cent believe their account of things, even Cannon’s Florence who is suffering from dementia… but there’s something about Billy where even at the end of the book, I’m not sure we completely know the truth.

That’s because we see everything from his point of view, we don’t see anybody else’s version of events and there’s enough vagueness in Billy’s to make you realise it’s only an interpretation not necessarily an accurate count.

What this novel does succeed in doing is making the reader think about the nature of aging and how easily their interpretation can be dismissed. There is one thing about his past that is contradicted by a staff-member at the care home and from then on, I immediately began to doubt everything he was telling me.

The lasting thought though is how he has spent thirty plus years in a care home. We all like to think that when our time comes, if we have to spend any of it in a home, that it will be brief, but to spend a third of your life in one is a scary thought. 

Sometimes the only thing scarier than dying is living forever.

The Six Loves of Billy Binns is available now from Tinder Press

A(nother) Review: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

I finished this book a little while ago and it’s been hanging around the edges of my mind ever since. Maybe, partly because Jacob Rees-Mogg was waxing lyrical about the Boer War the other day on Question Time

You Will Be Safe Hereby Damian Barr is a novel set in South Africa. It starts – after a brief prologue – at the turn of the twentieth century following Sarah van der Waat’s diary entries from her time in a concentration camp. 

While very well written, it seems to bear little relation to the character of Willem, a young boy who appears in the prologue based in 2010.

As part one gives way to part two, we jumped forward to 1976, and we meet a new character, a young woman named Rayna. Again, very well written, very engaging, but her story of her family life and her marriage has seemingly no connection with Willem. 

I was enjoying it, but there was a niggling voice at the back of my head that was asking ‘where is this going?’ – which actually made the read more enjoyable. 

I read hundreds of books and with most of them I have a fair idea of where it is going, I’m pretty good at spotting twists, but this is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. 

And that’s because this isn’t a book about Willem, or Sarah or Rayna. This is a book about war and nationalism. 

The effects of the Boer War – fondly looked back on by the likes of Rees-Mogg as the last gentleman’s war – had and continue to have a lasting impact on South Africa. 

There’s a quote on the back of the copy I read from Diana Athill that says‘You come out of reading it a different person from when you went in’, while another, from Alex Preston reads ‘A book that will change the way you see the world’.

I highlight these two particular quotes because they manage to sum up exactly how I feel, in perhaps a more eloquent way than I ever could. I knew nothing about the Boer war – apart from Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army who claimed that ‘they do not like it up ‘em, sir’.

I didn’t know a huge amount about South Africa. I didn’t realise it was the British who basically invented concentration camps – perhaps not the gas chambers of Hitler’s war – but the British army was responsible for a huge amount of deaths in that country.

I’m angry that I didn’t know about this. It’s because history is written by the victors and the Empire as it was saw it a great victory. It’s not, it’s a shameful period of our country’s history and should be recognised as such. It should be taught in schools, alongside both World Wars. We should grow up knowing that we’re not always the heroes. 

I did know that. Of course I knew that. But this is perhaps the first time I truly know what that means. 

One last word before I go, and it’s another quote from the back cover – this time, from Patrick Gale: ‘Astonishing’. 

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr will by published by Bloomsbury on the 4thApril.

A Keeper by Graham Norton


A couple of years ago when Graham Norton published his first novel HoldingI rushed out to read it. Norton is one of my favourite broadcasters and never fails to make me laugh, but if I was expecting one of his famous opening monologues in book form, I was disappointed.

Norton managed to do what so few celebrities do, he created such a strong voice for his characters that it instantly took the celebrity shine off the book – to leave you in no doubt, that’s a good thing.

My verdict at the time – this man can write, but there was something missing. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As debut novels went, it was a very solid start, but it was his next book I would be keenly watching.

That (difficult?) second novel came out a few months ago, and while I didn’t quite rush as quickly as I did the first time, I kept my eyes keenly on a copy, ready to insert into my reading schedule. 

A Keeper is about Elizabeth Keane who travels from New York to her childhood home in Ireland in order to pack up her mother’s house after her death. While there she must face an estranged family and confront secrets her mother had kept hidden for years.

Once again Norton manages to avoid writing what most would expect of him (when are we going to get a super-camp love story?) – but hidden letters and family secrets are like catnip to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

The pace has picked up since his first novel, but the writing is just as good, with a plot that just begs you to keep reading and do it quickly, please. 

Loved this! When book three comes out, it will go straight to the top of my to-read list! 

8/10

A Keeper is available now from Hodder & Stoughton

A(nother) Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

January turned into a pretty crazy month for me. I left my job of sixteen years with nowhere to go and then had a short case of man-flu towards the end of the month.

There are bigger stories behind both of these things, but you don’t care about them. All you need to know is I’m using them as my excuse as to why I haven’t written any blog posts so far this year.

I have still been reading during this time though, and the first book I read this year was Normal People by Sally Rooney.

You’ll almost have certainly seen this book around – it was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the Costa, and declared Book of the Year by Waterstones. It’s been hard to miss, but maybe like me, you’ve gone several months having seen its distinctive cover without knowing exactly what’s underneath?

Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne and Connell – two teenagers who go to the same school in the west of Ireland, but have nothing really else in common and nothing to do with each other. Their lives start to become entwined, though, when Connell’s mother starts to clean for Marianne’s.

An attraction is formed and we become voyeurs to their relationship over the years, watching how they drift toward and away from each other as their circumstances change, drawing ever closer to what we assume is the natural conclusion.

Your next question, as is my duty to answer, is how good a book is it? There’s certainly been a lot of hype about it and it is well written, but the characters left me a bit lacking. I didn’t connect with either Marianne or Connell in a particularly strong way.

I didn’t dislike them, but to be ambivalent about the two lead characters when the lens is so tightly drawn around them is a problem.

Perhaps I was expecting too much after all the critical acclaim, or perhaps, as they title alludes they were supposed to be this normal.

It’s still very well written and an enjoyable read, I just didn’t quite get into it as much as other readers did.

7/10

Normal People is available now from Faber & Faber